Friday, November 13, 2015

Robben Island and First Solution – Erich

The other day, after touring the Slave Lodge, I posted some thoughts on Black Lives Matter which I called Free Lives Matter. At the time, I promised to think about solutions to some of the problems that the USA faces, and I asked others to do the same. Well, I have been thinking and I would like to propose one possible idea here. It goes along with our excursion of Wednesday.

We visited Robben Island. The name comes from the Dutch word for seal, for when the Dutch first found the island it had thousands of seals on it. These days, the seals don't use it anymore. But boy, the humans certainly have.

Out of Cape Town Harbor you enter Table Bay. And in Table Bay you find Robben Island. It has been used for many things including a hospital, an asylum, a leper colony, a place of banishment and exile, and most famously, a prison.

Robben Island's prisons did hold criminals who had broken the regular civil laws of South Africa. But it is more well know for holding political prisoners, those who fought against apartheid and the government who supported it. The most famous Robben Island prisoner was Nelson Mandela who wrote his Long Road to Freedom while incarcerated on the island. He hid the manuscript in a small garden he tended by burying it every night. He, and other leaders of the political movement, each lived in a small cell that gave them one mat on which to sleep (on the floor), a basin, and a bucket. You were able to leave your cell and go into the yard or to the bathroom from 7:00 to 3:30 (or 7h00 to 15h30 as they might write it here). Outside of those times, you were locked in the cell. You went to the bathroom in your bucket and then at 7:00, when you were allowed out again, carried your bucket to the toilets to empty and clean it.

Apartheid extended to the prisons as well. Robben Island was only the home of the non-white male political prisoners. If you were white or a woman, you were kept at different prisons on the mainland.

One of the issues that I considered in my previous post was that of our own prisons, filled with thousands upon thousands of people whose crime is drug possession. They haven't been convicted of any violent crime, but still they spend years incarcerated. And taxes pay for this, imprisoning people with the disease of addiction rather than treating them.

I have given it some thought and I have a proposal to make.

First, the federal and state governments work together to investigate alternatives to traditional incarceration for addicts who have not committed violent crimes. These alternatives should involve some sort of rehabilitation, programs that help to break the addiction, and let people get on with their lives in a healthy and positive way.

One such program is the Adult Drug Court program run in various states. Here are a couple of links about the program.

Significantly, some of the findings when Adult Drug Courts are evaluated are very positive. Here is a quote from the Bureau of Justice Assistance: “Evaluation studies consistently show that while offenders are participating in adult drug courts, they are less likely to commit crime, and, consequently, states and localities save money on criminal justice system costs.”

There haven't yet been many long term studies of Adult Drug Court participants, but they are still relatively young. Hopefully, the long term evaluations also show positive results. If not, other models must be tried and evaluated.

Second, states and the federal government need to shift the criminal codes so that more people can be placed into programs like Adult Drug Court rather than into prison. Mandatory minimums sound hard-line, but the evidence shows that they have not reduced the number of people addicted to drugs. And they are costing taxpayers so much money!

Third, new drug offenses need to be tried and handled with the alternatives chosen in step one above. This probably means more Adult Drug Courts (or other alternatives) must be established. But the savings in the costs of imprisonment will more than cover these costs.

Finally, fourth, and this one would take some real political courage, the governors and president need to pardon thousands of people who are serving terms for non-violent drug offenses. If these people commit another such crime, they should be dealt with in the new courts established in step three.

Will it work? I don't know for sure, and I can't know before it is tried. But we do already know that what we are doing at present isn't working. And thousands of people are losing their lives (not death, but complete loss of freedom) over the sickness of addiction.

I would appreciate your thoughts on this plan. If you see holes in it, let me know and I can think of possible solutions. If you think it would work, help me brainstorm how to make it a reality. Because for too many people, the lack of free lives is already their reality.

Table Mountain as seen from Robben Island.


  1. What's really interesting to me is the way the public still looks at addiction, which is that addicts are the victims of these terrible substances which can't be resisted, but that may not be the case. This video really describes very well how addiction should be seen as a mental health problem:

    You would think that having been through prohibition once before, the United States would have learned its lesson. That you make criminals out of people that aren't hurting anybody (but maybe themselves), and create a much bigger criminal class that tends not to get caught but gains more and more power operating in the shadows to provide something that so many people want, but which they can't acquire from anybody but a real hardened criminal that has learned not to get caught.

    Colorado is showing how successful legalization and taxation can be, and accompanying pardons for non-violent offenders improve the budget impacts even more. I think there is a way to legalize all drugs and provide better treatment for drug addicts and see a reduction in drug use, crime, and especially organized crime and terrorism, but it's going to be an uphill fight against a lot of different groups that are all perfectly happy with the status quo and the public at large who still hold the old view of drugs as irresistible and don't see the mental health reality.

    1. I'm not sure what the hurdles would be to legalizing all drugs. But there are many positive ideas involved in that. I would allow the government to regulate the drug sales. That would help to eliminate the real criminal rings that smuggle and sell the goods.

      But I know there is a legal history to how various drugs were declared "illegal". I'm not sure what it is. But perhaps it is something to research so that changes could be made.

      Much like my idea, I imagine this would take a lot more political courage than any of our current politicians has.

      Thanks for the ideas.